By Cybele Zhang
With the NFL Draft set to begin on Thursday in a new fully virtual format, sports outlets have been flooded with metrics comparing potential prospects. In addition to combine statistics and college tape, one of the most interesting (and contested) means of quantifying NFL talent is the Wonderlic Personnel Test.
The Wonderlic Test measures cognitive ability (much like an IQ test) and is used in hiring across industries. It was first introduced to the NFL by coach and executive Paul Brown in the late 1960s to predict player performance and has been used ever since.
The test is only 12 minutes and 50 questions long; the final score is the number correct out of 50. Wonderlic, Inc. claims that a 20 tends to indicate average intelligence, while a score under 10 suggests illiteracy. Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy made headlines this week for reportedly scoring 9.
I was curious what the test was really like, so I found an online practice test to investigate for myself. My version was the same time and length as the official exam administered to NFL prospects, but obviously I wasn’t under the same pressured conditions inherent to the draft. The questions reminded me of the SAT, ranging from vocabulary to algebra, but problems were worded in a purposely deceptive way. I and two friends on the Stanford football team took the practice test, and our average score was 42.
So what does my small piece of data show? Stanford’s highly selective admission standards hold up. The average football player scores around 20 points, which we more than doubled on average. Historically, quarterbacks and offensive linemen have higher scores, but both of my friends were defensive players — making me wonder what quarterback Davis Mills or senior offensive tackle Walker Little would get.
At the 2020 combine, Stanford’s fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill scored a 30 on the Wonderlic — which was the highest of this year’s edge rushers, outscoring Heisman finalist Chase Young by 11. Junior tight end Colby Parkinson, who left early to declare for the draft, did not have a reported score.
The graph below shows the available scores of Stanford draftees. Every Cardinal player scored above the average for their position group.
The lowest-ever known score of an NFL prospect is 4, and the highest is 50. The lone perfect score in football history came from punter/wide receiver Pat McInally out of Harvard in the 1975 Draft.
McInally was drafted in the fifth round but later claimed that his high score hurt his draft stock.
“Coaches and front-office guys don’t like extremes one way or the other, but particularly not on the high side,” McInally said in an NBC interview. “I think they think guys who are intelligent will challenge authority too much.”
So are higher scores from former players at highly selective colleges actually harming them? Quite frankly, it’s still unclear if scores are even evaluated at all.
According to former Cardinal and five-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman “no one cares.”
That being said, Sherman reportedly scored 24 — 6 points above his position average — and was drafted in the fifth round.
According to a McDonald Mirabile study in 2005, quarterbacks’ scores have no correlation to passer rating or NFL salary. Medium argues instead that once a minimum “smartness threshold” is met (about 25) for quarterbacks, Wonderlic points are irrelevant on the field.
Outside of the quarterback position, again, little correlation between Wonderlic scores and performance is proven. A 2009 study by Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, and John W. Michel found that Wonderlic scores failed to positively and significantly predict future NFL performance, draft position or number of games started for any position. Lyons writes, “because [the NFL] is so physically based, the results point to that [general mental ability] really doesn’t matter.”
This seems to send a dangerous message that intelligence is useless, which I would certainly push back upon. But I do agree that the Wonderlic test may not be the most accurate measure.
After all, now disgraced players such as Michael Vick and Aaron Hernandez received fairly normal scores of 20 and 17, respectively — but that clearly had little correlation to their preparedness for life beyond football.
But despite the pushback and lack of clear correlation, the test persists each spring in preparation for the annual draft. After all, there’s little harm in NFL teams having another data point when making multi-million dollar personnel decisions. The scores just need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu.